A Mountain of History
HOW FROGTOWN BECAME FORSYTH’S FAVORITE RACE
written by JENNIFER COLOSIMO | photos courtesy of CHRIS GARMON; TRUESPEEDPHOTO.COM; KIRK SMITH
In the duration of summer’s ridiculous highs and thick blankets of humidity, unless my feet were in the baby pool or a sprinkler crossing my path, my family spent the majority of our late afternoons indoors. Now that it’s feasible to face the great outdoors again, many locals have their sights set and their calendars circled for Cumming’s annual Frogtown Trail Challenge.
If the image of lacing up those sneakers isn’t motivation enough, how about the excuse to buy new ones? As veterans know, Frogtown, which takes place this year on Saturday, Oct. 8, is not your average, everyday race. It’s 4, 6 or 10 miles of muddy hills, knee-deep creeks, impossible inclines and organic obstacles (i.e. tree branches, tree trunks, stumps) with a convenient shoe swap station right on the course. It’s also a community event, starting the night before with fellowship, music, bonfires and camping onsite that carries into race day with more than 100 volunteers, hundreds of runners and plenty of support teams. Maybe unbeknownst to many of those attendees is that the land they’re treading upon is as fascinating as their competitors’ — particularly one cancer survivor’s — dedication to it.
THIS OLD HOUSE
The history actually starts about 4,000 years ago, as a recent surveyor found etchings on rocks sitting deep in the woods. They’ve since been sent to The University of Georgia’s archaeology department and landed back in Forsyth County as an annual highlight of the county fair. It was quite a surprise, considering the land has been used by generations of farmers — meaning despite tilling, sowing and reaping, ancient history lives on.
In the early 1800s, the Groover family established their homestead on what was then known as Frogtown. Many were farmers and some were founding members of the still-standing Mount Tabor Baptist Church. Their lineage included individuals who operated saw mills and donated lumber for the local schoolhouse, worked on the gold mine, fought in the Civil War and even one who held a county bailiff position, chasing rumrunners out of nearby Dawsonville.
Perhaps that love of the chase and the spirit of giving back to the community is something in their blood, and therefore somewhat responsible for what birthed the idea for the present generation to start their trail race — one that gives 100 percent of its net proceeds to a charity of choice.
Chris Garmon, the oldest of the Garmon brothers and great-grandsons of Frogtown’s Mary Elizabeth Groover (later, Harris) said, “[My great-grandmother, Meme] was the only relative on that side of the family I knew growing up. I remember being 7 or 8 years old and riding with her from Marietta to Mount Tabor Baptist church for dinner on the grounds.”
Garmon, now 46 and married, recounted the drive past the family’s property, including “The Old Frogtown House” where “Meme” was born in 1900. She lived there until the 1930s with her husband, Louie Mashburn Harris, and two children until farming took a hit along with the rest of the economy, and they moved to Marietta. For two generations, the property sat untouched, but eventually Forsyth County would call Garmon’s family back.
That call came in 1996 with Garmon prepping to move to the property with Meme. He was in his 20s and starting a career in real estate and banking, and despite Groover-Harris passing before she could move back, Garmon felt like it was still the right decision for him. Although he no longer lives on the property (his younger brother, Patrick, does), he’s stayed in Cumming ever since.
As you can imagine, with 400-plus acres untouched for almost 100 years, plenty of investors and land developers approached them to sell. Vision Atlanta, a former organization for underprivileged inner-city kids proposed building their new campsite on the property. That was perhaps the most tempting offer, but giving up a vast history with so much potential for just one great cause didn’t feel right. It did, however, give them an idea. They decided to launch an annual trail race benefitting several great causes. It left the property to Mother Nature, put the family back in touch with their roots and has become a tradition that Garmon said lets them continue giving back to the area, just as their ancestors did.
That first year, they hosted a race to benefit Vision Atlanta. Thirty-five people came out to the Race for Camp Grace and proceeds helped build the organization’s campsite south of the city. A few years later, in 2009, it was time to make the race official. Partnering again with Orion Racing, they launched Frogtown Trail Challenge, a 4- and 10-mile trail race that attracted hundreds of runners and raised money for Georgia Sheri ’s Youth Homes. Every year since, they’ve chosen a different charity and improved both the course and its details with help from sponsors and beneficiaries.
“It costs about $12,000 to put a race on,” said Garmon, who spearheads the family’s efforts. “We’ve learned a lot every single year about how to make it better.”
While Garmon said they take pride in never cutting corners, the family quite literally does cut the actual trails themselves with hacksaws, mowers, blowers and more. They spray for poison ivy, hunt down yellow jackets’ nests and clear the fields for parking, camping and emergency transportation. The land only gets used once a year, so the work starts in late summer and goes right up until race day, where a maximum occupancy 1,000 runners is the goal. They inventory plenty of Porta-Potty rentals, tons of water along the course and an impressive swag bag for runners.
This year, the race will benefit Cumming Civitan Club and local troops of American Heritage Girls and Trail Life USA. They added the 6-mile course option so that 4-milers no longer have to miss out on the beloved 4,000-foot creek romp. Runners come from near and far, as many make it a weekend experience via trailers, tents and sleeping bags the night before.
“I did road races for several years and it got kind of monotonous just running on a street with a bunch of people,” said Richie Taylor of Cumming, who plans to race for the second time this year. “Trail races are much more tactical. Plus, the terrain out there is just beautiful. My favorite part is this long stretch of fl at trail that runs alongside the creek. I remember being out there thinking, ‘I could do this all day.’”
“It’s a true trail race,” added four-time runner, Jason Howard of Roswell. “A lot of other races are mostly obstacle-based, but this one is just a great run through beautiful property in the woods. My wife and I love the family atmosphere, the variety that the course offers and we’re even camping this year.” As a 4-miler in years past, Howard is doing the 6-mile race this year, changing up his route a little, but still mentally preparing for a long, steep uphill that inspires him to “never look up. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
REWARD BEYOND THE FINISH LINE
In the spirit of never giving up, runners that return to tackle this trail challenge every year are just as inspiring as the history and hard work from the Garmons. In particular, there’s Christine Steck, a participant since 2012 who plans to celebrate her 50th birthday this year on the trail.
Steck’s first Frogtown race was on the 10-mile course. She wasn’t an avid runner, but prepared with plenty of cardio, had previous experience with trail races and had a support group signing up with her.
“That race is hard,” Steck said. “I mean, it’s really hard, and I struggled. There were times when I was out there alone and it became spiritual for me … It’s long, and it’s intense. My mom had passed away not long before and I talked to her a lot, and of course, I was praying to God to just get me through it.”
She remembers going to her gym the following Saturday when her trainer asked what she thought about her experience. “I told him, that race changed me. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I am in love with that mountain. I really am.”
About six months later, Steck was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was early but aggressive, so the next few months included back-to-back surgeries, long recoveries, draining chemo treatments and radiation. Steck never stopped working out during those months. In fact, she finished radiation and chemo just weeks before the 2013 race — and she still ran. With her doctor’s permission, she even did the 10-mile course again. If that isn’t impressive enough, she came in first place in her age group.
“Honestly, I never felt stronger,” Steck said. “I was on top of the world running that race. There were just so many people around me, encouraging me or smiling at me. It’s full of just good people.”
Last year, Steck completed the 4-mile course and has registered to run the same distance again in October.
“It’s just part of a sense of normalcy,” she said. “You have to do what makes you feel normal, and what makes you feel good. I wanted to be in control of this and, for me, that meant staying active, staying strong.”
There’s more than the usual fitness challenges used as motivation when it comes to Frogtown. Running this race means dipping those sneakers (the old ones) in hundreds of years of gorgeously illustrated history — a legacy that is still alive today — inspiring goodwill and helping runners conquer personal obstacles. Or, hey, in honor of that one family bailiff, modern-day rumrunners can do this chase simply for the fun of it.
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